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Grandma’s Depression Cake

An eggless, butterless, milkless cake from the Great Depression: a tasty recipe for tough times

Rosemary Marbach and her nephews Patrick and Daniel

The only thing that troubled me more than the pain in my back that morning as I climbed out of the guest bed at my sister’s house was my worries about money, the same worries that I fell asleep thinking about.

I’d been excited to visit Therese and see my nieces and nephews, but all I could think about was how I’d hurt my back and had to cut down on my hours at work. Even with my savings, I wasn’t sure I’d have enough to cover the bills. Slowly I pulled on my robe and limped to the kitchen.

“Are you okay?” Therese asked, handing me a steaming cup of tea.

“Yeah,” I said. “Just wish I could stop worrying about my finances.”

Therese put her hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t we make Grandma’s cake,” she said. “It’ll cheer you up.”

“We’ll help!” my nephews Patrick and Daniel chimed in.

After breakfast, I got the ingredients out of the pantry. Patrick and Daniel grabbed bowls from the cupboard. “My mom used to make this cake for all of us,” I said as I mixed the sugar and oil.

“Even though there wasn’t a lot of money,” Patrick added, having heard the story many times.

“That’s right. Especially then.” Daniel stirred in the raisins and Patrick added the spices. Then we stirred in the flour. I poured the batter into a pan. The boys watched while I slid the pan into the oven. “It’ll be ready in an hour,” I told them. They ran off to play.

I sat in the kitchen with Therese, sipping my tea. “Nothing ever stole Mom’s joy,” I said.

It wasn’t easy being a single mom, raising eight of us kids on a very tight budget, but that couldn’t bring her down. “She’d always say, ‘When you don’t have anything, you make do and the Lord will provide the rest,’” Therese said.

Mom got that spirit from her mother, Grandma Ethel, who never let the hardships of the Depression discourage her.

Mom was also a master at making food stretch. And she always found a way to include a special treat on birthdays or Christmas—a tasty cake with no eggs, milk or butter that Grandma taught her to bake. Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake, she called it.

“Remember how we’d all run around the living room chanting, ‘eggless, milkless, butterless cake’ once we caught a whiff of it coming from the kitchen?” Therese asked, laughing.

“Those were good times,” I said. We didn’t have money, but we sure knew how to have fun together. Just thinking about the eight of us gathered around the Formica table in the kitchen waiting for Mom to cut the cake made my worries fade.

Mom made that cake extra special for the Feast of the Epiphany. She’d toss a penny, a nickel, a dime and a quarter into the batter. “Whoever finds the prize (the quarter) in their slice of cake can keep it and they won’t have to do chores for a week,” she’d say. Boy, did we love that tradition!

My siblings and I are now spread out from coast to coast and cities in between. But that cake still connects us.

My brother Peter keeps Mom’s tradition for the Epiphany with his daughter. Therese’s daughter recently moved back home to save money while she finishes grad school. “When Genevieve and I make the cake together,” Therese told me, “it gives us time to sit and talk.”

Patrick sells the cake with his mom, my sister Lucy, at their church bake sales. He loves telling how the story of the cake stretches all the way back to the Great Depression.

“Cake’s done,” Therese said. I pulled it out of the oven then called everyone in. We gathered around the kitchen table, just like old times.

“Feeling better?” Therese asked.

“Much better,” I said. I looked at the faces around the table and breathed in the familiar aroma of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, reminded once again that whatever hardships come my way I can do more than simply get through them.

I can find joy in my life, even in a simple cake, and share it with the ones I love.

Try making Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake yourself!

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